Feline-agility competitions, in which cats run through a miniature obstacle course full of hurdles and tunnels, have become fixtures on the cat-show scene.
It this sport, contestants sometimes lie down in the middle of the field, unmotivated and bemused.
Feline-agility competitions, in which cats run through a miniature obstacle course full of hurdles and tunnels, have become fixtures on the cat-show scene. Modeled after canine-agility competitions, the tournaments feature a ring in which cat owners brandish a feather or sparkly wand to coax a cat to climb stairs, weave around poles and leap through hoops in as little time as possible.
Some cats tear through the course in seconds. Others make it clear they could not care less.
“You have to get the cat to focus on the toy,” said Anthony Hutcherson, who raises Bengal cats in Port Tobacco, Md., and whose oldest cat, Justin, has run the course in nine seconds. “Cats will pretty much chase a feather on a string anywhere.”
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The two major organizations for cat lovers — the International Cat Association and the Cat Fanciers’ Association — this weekend are holding their annual cat shows, one in New York and the other in Indianapolis. At both events, any registered cat can partake in the agility event while the pedigreed cats are being judged.
Most people send their cats into the ring cold, where they often are spooked by the crowds and unfamiliar setting. But others train their cats — usually with a regimen of treats, praise and neck rubs — and find they will do tricks, albeit on their terms.
“They have to do all 10 obstacles, in order, counterclockwise, with no mistakes,” said Jill Archibald, agility coordinator for the Cat Fanciers’ Association, who will be the ringmaster in Indianapolis.
Archibald, a retired physical-education teacher from Freehold Township, N.J., has posted a series of online videos about how to train your cat. She also has built a 20-foot-by-30-foot agility ring, which she drives from one cat show to the next. She made the obstacles, including jumps and hoops, because the only ones sold commercially are meant for dogs, and thus are too large.
About 30 percent of the cats finish the course in the allotted 4 ½ minutes, said Russell Reimer, a ringmaster in Mesa, Ariz. “Most of them have a hard time with the weave poles,” he said. “The tunnels, the steps, the hurdles are no problem.”
Under Cat Fanciers’ Association’s rules, which differ from those of the International Cat Association, a cat is awarded 15 points for each obstacle it navigates successfully, Reimer said.
But is it the cat’s work ethic or its training regimen — nature or nurture — that makes an agility champion?
“I think it’s more the personality of the cat,” said Reimer, who breeds Burmese. “There are some Maine coons that won’t do anything in there, and there are others that’ll tear the course to shreds. The same with the Abyssinians.”
Feline-agility contests began about a decade ago when two couples who met on the cat-show circuit went out to dinner and started talking about the tricks their cats did. They modified some dog-agility obstacles and showed them to their cats; from there, a group called International Cat Agility Tournaments — ICAT — was born.
As best anyone can remember, agility competitions started popping up at cat shows around 2004, and scores have been kept sporadically. Prize money occasionally is offered, but more often a ribbon or small trophy is given.
Twyla Mooner, a Bengal from Reston, Va., is considered one of the greatest agility champions and will compete in Indianapolis this weekend. “She is all about speed,” said her owner, Lisa Maria Padilla. “There is not a whole lot of finesse and style, but she burns through the course, and she is good for about two runs a day.”
Most owners are not so lucky. Cat-agility videos on YouTube show more bloopers than triumphs.
“There are people there shaking a feather for what seems like an eternity, and the cat just looks at the person and says, ‘I don’t think so,’ ” said Hutcherson, the Maryland breeder.
Cat agility has not caught on quite as rapidly as its founders had hoped. The main problem is financial: Most cat shows barely break even, and it is more lucrative to lease space in the show hall to vendors than to install an agility ring.
Veterinarians favor cat play. “I think we let cats’ brains rot, and I think it’s really sad,” said Cynthia Otto, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
She has trained her cat to ride a skateboard, and her dog to push it. “If you start doing this, it really changes your relationship with your animal and enhances your bond,” Otto said.